Lake Placid: Collector's Edition [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Shout! Factory
Review written by and copyright: Ethan Stevenson (15th July 2014).
The Film

"They wanted to call it Lake Placid, but somebody said that name was taken."

The name David E. Kelley has lost a lot of lustre in the last decade. The writer’s recent father-daughter ad agency comedy “The Crazy Ones” (2013-2014) was supposed to be a return to television not just for star Robin Williams, but series creator Kelley too. And yet, after a single season, it was cancelled. What happened with “The Crazy Ones” was entirely unexpected—although not unprecedented—because of the talent involved, the fact that CBS had previously given it a straight-to-series order, and the relatively untapped potential of product placement profitability. At the time of “The Crazy Ones” premiere, the trades were filled with talk of a McDonald-centric subplot and the prospect and promise of other lucrative backend deals with big commercial brands that could've factored into the plot of each episode or season. With its axing for whatever ultimate reason, the series’ demise marked yet another loss for Kelley, who'd faced similar failure with the Kathy Bates courtroom dramedy “Harry’s Law” (2011-2012) a year earlier. And in truth, both cancellations were but relatively minor misfires in a going-on 10 year run of unrealized projects—a "Wonder Woman" television show that never made it beyond the pilot stage, an American remake of “Life on Mars” (2008), which he was eventually forced off of by the ABC network, and, really, too many other examples to singularly name—that either never completely came to fruition as he envisioned them, or at all.

But at one time, mere mention of Kelley’s name carried a certain cachet; the kind that could grant a writer enough freedom to dabble in shlocky genre glory, yet still attract the attention of a fairly respected cast and crew and, most importantly, garner financing and distribution through normal studio channels (namely, 20th Century Fox, where Kelley once had an overall deal). “Lake Placid”, a horror-comedy hybrid about a killer crocodile that terrorizes a small group of people in upstate Maine, could not have been made, by Kelley or probably any other, in another time than the tail end of the 1990's. Recent failures notwithstanding, Kelley was once probably the closest thing to an auteur in American primetime television, not as a director but writer/producer. He started out as a lawyer, but soon left the legal business for the one of show. He moved to Los Angeles, where he sold his first script, which became the Judd Nelson starring feature “From the Hip” (1987). Soon after, Kelley joined the staff of Steven Bochco’s “L.A. Law” (1986-1994), and then eventually went out on his own. Like Bochco before him, Kelley became one of the first showrunners who was known as a demographic hit-maker. His various series may not have topped the Nielsen numbers week in and week out, but they were modest hits, immensely popular with upscale, urban professionals; a demo whose attention the networks, and their advertisers, so desperately craved. By appealing almost exclusively to a certain, slightly more highbrow group, Kelley made a name for himself with shows like medical-mystery procedural “Chicago Hope” (1994-2000), suburban satire “Picket Fences” (1992-1996) and his bread-and-butter legal drama/comedies “Ally McBeal” (1997-2002) and “The Practice” (1997-2004).

It was at the height of his popularity that Kelley, a writer made famous by the small screen returned to the big one with a pair of pictures released months apart—“Mystery, Alaska” (1999) and “Lake Placid” (1999). Neither film was particularly well reviewed upon release. But “Placid” was especially unfairly maligned, in part because it was almost completely, unanimously, misunderstood. It simply wasn’t what critics and audiences expected from a man who’d just done what few had before, and won the Emmy for both comedy and drama in the same year for his two most popular shows. The truth is, as sendup, that’s part satire and part semi-serious, even legitimate genre entry, “Lake Placid” works. It’s playful, using the conventions of horror skillfully, nearly without irony but also with a subtle—occasionally blatant—sense of humor. It’s a silly movie, and way beyond borderline on the ridiculous scale. But its a also enjoyable because it knows exactly how bad it is.

The plot of “Placid” is pure B-movie cheese. And it has absolutely nothing to do with the so-called Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Winter Olympics, which might have been more in line with what at least a certain subset was expecting from Kelley with the title he chose. Set in the fictional small town of Black Lake, Maine, the film opens with the decapitation of a diver by an unseen beastie beneath the waterline. When the half eaten body is pulled from the lake, the tooth of possibly prehistoric creature lodged in the gaping wound, it’s up to big city palaeontologist Kelly Scott (Bridget Fonda, not at all believable as a scientist but for that same reason perhaps perfectly cast) and local Fish and Game warden Jack Wells (Bill Pullman) to find out what they’re dealing with. As they soon discover, the “what” in question is a 30 foot salt water crocodile, which somehow found its way inland to call the once placid lake home and now has an insatiable hunger for human flesh. Also along for the ride is a sheriff who’s allergic to sarcasm, Hank Keough (the always brilliant Brendan Gleeson), and a bizarre millionaire and part-time professor of mythology, Hector Cyr (Oliver Platt), who has an odd obsession with the scaly critters. Together, it’s up to the four of them to capture, and/or kill, the croc before it eats anyone else.

Deliberately lacking the sophistication of Kelley’s various TV series, but not the bitter, biting and scathingly sarcastic humor, “Placid” is more graphic—violent, vulgar and downright exploitive—than most of his other output. While it is most definitely an oddity in Kelley’s career, it isn’t really that unique a film for its era, although it is one of the better efforts in its genre, because it has a distinct understanding of what it wants to be. Medium-budget creature-features were still kinda-cool with major studios in the late 90's—thank, or blame, “Jurassic Park” (1993), and to a lesser extent its sequel for kickstarting that; ditto “Anaconda” (1997) and “Placid” for the decline—and so when Kelley set about writing his script, he decided to make it the ultimate homage to the sub-genre. Creature-feature horror was inordinately popular at the time of “Placid’s” release, but of course also had a long legacy of lesser efforts that preceded them. Kelley, and director Steve Miner, were as interested in tackling the tropes of more respected entries, like “Jaws” (1975), as they were its many imitators, like “Piranha” (1978), and the the imitators of the imitators, like “Alligator” (1980). As a result, “Lake Placid” has the unusual distinction of being a movie that’s mindful of its own mindlessness. Knowing; and well aware of what makes a monster movie work. Hint: it’s rarely the characters, which might be—almost assuredly—why the entire cast is shaded into sketches of genre types rather than given well-rounded personalities written like people who feel real.

At the same time, “Placid” is very much Kelley putting his own spin on things, peppering his perfectly penned dialogue with a pervasive sarcastic lilt, and being meta enough to integrate a character irritated by sarcasm into the plot. He’s almost deliberately disinterested in developing a deeper narrative than “guys, and a girl, versus giant croc means gore”. He also relishes in the rarity of being able to go so far with his style, in an R-rated film, gifting the world with wonderful scandalous lines. (Example: pretty much, everything Betty White, who plays a foul-mouth lake resident, says in this movie.) Tightly, smartly edited—the runtime is a little over 77 slick and entertaining minutes without credits—the picture’s fast pace supports the rapid fire, rat-a-tat dialogue. Miner and cinematographer Daryn Okada’s make effective used of the cinemascope frame, with inventive and restrained camerawork that often leaves the killer croc—designed by legendary effects wizard Stan Winston, and introduced into the film via both CGI and a massively articulated automaton—seen only in the bits and piers, building suspense better than most other humorous riffs on horror ever manage. For their time, the effects were excellent and they hold exceptionally well today, because the CG was so sparingly used. I maintain the 1990's were pinnacle of visual effects, because so much was still practical.

The actor’s performances are solid, if intentionally devoid of much depth. Gleeson and Pratt have a fantastic, exceedingly confrontational rapport, with Sheriff Keough and Cyr engaging in some very funny back-and-forth bickering. The mandatory romantic element, between Scott and Wells is less effective; not even a modicum of chemistry between Pullman and Fonda leaves the sudden development a perfunctory point rather than an organic element of the plot. Then again, even here, as he does so many other places in the film, Kelley surprises with sly, subversive satire and some slight sarcasm. I would never pretend to defend “Lake Placid” as anything more than light entertainment, or make an argument that is a good film outside of its own slummy genre confines, but it’s quite fun, at times very funny, and frankly much better than other efforts—especially “Placid’s” own god awful sequels made for the SyFy Channel.

Video

The Blu-ray release of “Lake Placid” looks better than I anticipated; much, much, much better than Shout’s other recent release licensed from 20th Century Fox, the atrociously botched “Ravenous” (1999). “Placid’s” 2.40:1 widescreen 1080p 24/fps high definition presentation is perhaps not as pristine as one might expect for a film of such relatively recent vintage, and the transfer is not without flaw, but it’s generally pleasing and should appease fans looking for an upgrade over their DVD, which the new BD handedly beats. There’s some minor speckling in the opening minutes, although the source is otherwise clean, and the AVC MPEG-4 encode suffers from faint compression artifacts at an annoyingly frequent rate, especially in any scene underwater, where large patches of color come across as a banded mess. But, overall, the image holds up, and delivers a satisfying though imperfect presentation. While it isn’t among the sharpest transfers to ever grace the format, the disc is not left wanting for detail either with defined tree lines and legible badging and labels. One could even say the disc is none-to-kind to the thankfully sparingly-seen CG version of the croc, and likewise revealing, in a positive way, of the much more careful craft in Stan Winston’s animatronic creation. Whatever softness there is appears mostly inherent to the anamorphic lensing and slightly overexposed nature of Daryn Okada’s scope cinematography, where whites bloom and the lake surface has a shimmering glow. Daylight scenes are also slightly clogged up by a pervasive yellow-amber filter, where the only other dominant color is green and skin tones are over saturated. The warm filtering flattens out color and contrast to, presumably, suggest a muggy summer heat in the face of the cooler Canadian climate in which the film was actually shot. Night scenes fare better, unburdened by blanket color casts, and are unusually well lit by lamp, flash, or moonlight (or more accurately, whatever key lights were used to create such a look). Delineation and detail is sometimes downright impressive in the night scenes, which have a surprising level of clarity and some depth. The transfer retains a fine layer of grain in most scenes, without suggesting an overly noisy texture. Edge enhancement is a non-issue and any noise reduction has been applied judiciously.

Audio

The default English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix (48kHz/24-bit) is satisfying if also an artifact of its era. The track has an at-times overly aggressive use of gimmicky effects in the surround channels, as was incredibly popular in the late 90's when modern multi-channel came of age with the proliferation of digital delivery formats in theaters and on disc. Still, the aggressive nature does grant the occasional underwater scene or chaotic croc attack a wonderful immersive quality, and the infrequent but forceful gun shot, or helicopter crash, packs some weight on the low-end. Dialogue is clean, and John Ottman’s score—with some very Goldsmith-ian brass right from the outset of the opening titles—is supported even into the harsher, higher registers. The disc also includes an unnecessary English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo down mix and (much more useful) optional English subtitles if so desired.

Extras

Shout/Scream Factory’s so-called Collector’s Edition of “Lake Placid” isn’t exactly overflowing with supplements, although it does include a newly produced retrospective featurette and some vintage material: the original theatrical trailer, an EPK featurette, TV spots, some b-roll test footage, and a photo gallery. Although the entire package is technically encoded in 1080p, most of the content appears up-converted from standard definition sources.

By far the best extra on the Blu-ray is a newly produced retrospective featurette, entitled “The Making of “Lake Placid’” (1.78:1 widescreen, 1080p; 31 minutes 20 seconds). While several primary members of the cast and crew sadly do not appear here (what I wouldn’t give to hear from David E. Kelley), the group brought together by Shout is still pretty impressive: actor Bill Pullman, director Steve Miner, cinematographer Daryn Okada, editor Marshall Harvey, production designer John Willett, effects supervisor Nick Marra, and makeup effects artist Toby Lindala. There’s talk of the original screenplay and its deft blend of comedy and horror, the look of the film, the shoot—in a man-made lake in the middle of Canada—and the locations, the design of the crocodile and the effects-work done by Stan Winston Studios, and the importance of finding an editing rhythm that worked for the unusual tone, among many other topics. At little over a half an hour, its hardly an exhausting experience but is surprisingly comprehensive.

Although Bridget Fonda and several other primary cast members are notably absent from the new retrospective, many appear in the original EPK featurette (2.35:1/1.66:1/1.33:1, 1080p; 5 minutes 38 seconds) included here for posterity. At least some of the featurette appears do be from a high def source, although many of the interviews are from pillar-boxed videotape.

The theatrical trailer (1.78:1 widescreen, 1080p up-convert; 1 minute 58 seconds) is a silly thing, which doesn’t really find the right balance of tone.

The disc also includes 3 TV spots (1.66:1 widescreen, 1080p up-convert; 1 minute 34 seconds) from the original promotional campaign.

“Croc Test Footage” (1.78:1 widescreen, 1080p up-convert; 7 minutes 21 seconds) is an unedited b-roll, of test footage shot on VHS, replete with time and date stamp, of the effects crew running the massive animatronic monster through the ringer on the water. There’s no sound, or voice over commentary, and nothing of any real interest happens making this features inclusion little more than a completist oddity.

Behind the Scenes gallery (HD, 5 minutes 31 seconds) is a self-advancing assemblage of production photos from the set and behind the scenes at Stan Winston workshop.

Packaging

Scream Factory, Shout Factory’s horror skewing banner, bring “Lake Placid” to Blu-ray billed as a Collector’s Edition. The disc is Region A locked and housed in an Elite keep case. The case art is reversible. A cardboard slip-cover has been included in first pressings.

Overall

“Lake Placid” is an enjoyable movie precisely because it knows it’s bad. Not so much in the way that it fits a so-had-it’s-good mold, but rather as a knowing, almost satirical homage to shlock. It’s camp comedy; a riff on a B-movie sub genre, albeit with a higher budget, better effects, more impressive cast, and sense of humor and sarcasm not usually seen in similar efforts. Met with an initially tepid critical response—it’s no wonder, considering writer David E. Kelley’s name carried a certain cachet with his urbanite television audience whose tastes were seemingly at odds with a slimy, grimy, creature-feature—“Placid” has earned the status of cult classic, perhaps even more so now that it’s retrospectively such an artifact of its era, notable as a unique work in Kelley’s career and the murderous-water-monster sub-genre of horror. Compared to the previous DVD, the new Blu-ray release offers a satisfying upgrade in video and audio, and a solid new supplement in a lengthy featurette. Recommended.

The Film: B Video: B Audio: B+ Extras: C+ Overall: B

 


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